VOICE OVER: Peter DeGiglio
WRITTEN BY: Joshua Garvin
The government is meant to make our lives better - but that is far from always the case. For this list, we'll be looking at specific actions taken, programs enacted, and systemic injustices put in place by the federal government which took a horrific human toll. Our countdown of the times the government ruined American lives includes McCarthyism, Slavery, Project MKUltra, and more!
Times the Government Ruined American’s Lives
Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’re examining 10 Times the Government Ruined Americans’ Lives.
For this list, we’ll be looking at both specific actions taken, programs enacted, and systemic injustices put in place by the federal government which took a horrific human toll.
While the U.S. government has done plenty of good, it also has many skeletons in its closet. If you’ve dug one up that’s not on our list, let us know in the comments below.
Around the turn of the 1950s, Senator Joseph McCarthy from Wisconsin and FBI director J. Edgar Hoover began a second Red Scare. They hunted for communists in all areas of society, from the government to Hollywood. The hysteria and fear eventually reached a fever pitch. Hundreds of Americans were sent to prison while others lost their jobs for refusing to testify before McCarthy in the senate or the House Un-American Activities Committee. Many of those sent to prison did not, in fact, have any ties to communist organizations, but that didn’t matter. Political affiliations and sexual orientations of government employees were put under the microscope before the entire nation. Thousands of lives were destroyed before it all finally came to an end.
Forced Sterilization of Indigenous Women
While some may want to consign the mistreatment of Native Americans to ancient history, that couldn’t be further from the truth. In the 1960s and ‘70s, doctors - many paid by the U.S. Government - forcibly sterilized anywhere between twenty-five to forty percent of Native American women of childbearing age. More often than not, these procedures were done without consent as a state-sponsored act of genocide. Black and Latina women were also targets of similar programs, to a lesser degree. The sterilizations capped centuries of efforts to either destroy indigenous populations or erase their identities.
For twenty years between 1953 and 1973, the CIA enacted a series of programs culminating in Project MKULTRA. Eighty colleges and institutions and hundreds of scientists were recruited to participate in illegal experiments on civilians. Biological, chemical, and radiological agents were employed to test mind control and interrogation techniques. LSD was given to college students across the country - often without their knowledge. Men who went to brothels in San Francisco were observed through two-way mirrors after being slipped the drug. A subproject numbered 68 saw an American doctor traveling to Canada to utilize alternative mind-control techniques. He employed a combination of drug-induced comas and long-term electroshock therapy to “repatern” his subjects. He caused permanent damage to patients seeking legitimate care.
Plessy v. Ferguson
For much of its history, the United States Supreme Court has been a regressive institution, erring towards cementing power structures in the status quo. After the Civil War, America saw the largest expansion of civil rights since its founding during Reconstruction. Revanchist forces in congress steadily rolled back equal protections in the last twenty-five years of the 19th century. In 1896, the Supreme Court ruled in Plessy v. Ferguson, upholding Louisiana’s mandatory segregation. “Separate but equal” became the law of the land throughout the former Confederacy, condemning generations of African Americans to second-class citizenship. Legal segregation would continue until Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. Even so, the ramifications of segregation and practices like redlining continue to be felt today.
The Chinese Confession Program
Every wave of immigrants to the United States has faced the headwinds of bigotry and hatred. Few lasted as long as those faced by the Chinese. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 severely restricted immigration from China. Though it was repealed by FDR in 1943, who called it a “historic mistake,” that wasn’t the end. Many Chinese Americans lived in the shadows and feared deportation. In 1956, INS and the FBI enacted the Chinese Confession Program. Chinese Americans were offered full citizenship in exchange for confessing to lying about their identities and if they informed their neighbors. Government raids plagued San Francisco’s Chinatown, with one playwright calling them acts of “government terrorism.” Chinese Americans suffered through almost a decade of fear.
The rise of the civil rights and anti-war movements on the political left led to an institutional backlash in the federal government. J. Edgar Hoover, director of the FBI, sanctioned a plan called the Counter Intelligence Program, or COINTELPRO. Its goals were to infiltrate and spy on organizations and leaders within these movements to disrupt and destroy them from within. Multiple presidents of both parties sanctioned the illegal program. COINTELPRO spread misinformation and splintered organizations like the Black Panthers, leading to some gruesome results. In Chicago, Black Panther Fred Hampton was under observation by the FBI. COINTELPRO had decimated the organization, and Hampton was fighting their efforts. In 1969, Hampton was drugged by an FBI informant and subsequently assassinated in his home by Chicago PD.
Tuskegee Syphilis Study
For almost half of the 20th century, the U.S. Public Health Service conducted a terribly unethical and racist medical experiment. The Tuskegee Study began in 1932 and ended forty years later. Without any informed consent whatsoever, 400 black men who were infected with syphilis were test subjects for the U.S. government in a longitudinal study. Despite the discovery of penicillin, none of the men were ever cured of their disease by the PHS. Before the study’s end, forty of their wives contracted the disease and nineteen of their children were born with congenital syphilis. One of the worst long-term knock on effects was the pervasive mistrust of both the government and the healthcare system that still permeates Black communities today.
Japanese American Internment
After the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, anti-Japanese sentiment exploded amongst white Americans. Those irrational fears trickled upwards to the top echelons of the U.S. Government. Despite the fact that there were Nazi spies and sympathizers in America, it was Japanese Americans who suffered. The United States forcibly removed over 120,000 Japanese Americans from their homes and relocated them to internment camps until 1946. Around two thirds of those interned were Nisei, or second generation born in America. In other words, they were American citizens. The Korematsu decision by the Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of the interments. It’s one of the worst black marks on the history of the court.
Trail of Tears
The Trail of Tears will always taint the legacy of Andrew Jackson, the face of the $20 bill. When Native peoples of the American Southeast refused to assimilate, Congress passed the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Approximately 60,000 members of the Cherokee, Muscogee Creek, Seminole, Chickasaw, and Choctaw nations were forcibly displaced from their homelands. In an act of ethnic cleansing, the tribes were sent on over a thousand-mile forced march west of the Mississippi River. Thousands of men, women, and children suffered miserably and died from disease.
Slavery is often called America’s “original sin.” Textiles and manufactured goods from Europe were brought to West Africa. There, men, women, and children were kidnapped from their homes and bought and sold as property. They were packed like sardines onto slave ships where many died in wrecks or from disease and starvation. When the ships reached the “new world,” the people were sold to colonists who forced them to pick cash crops like sugar, indigo, rice, tobacco, and cotton. Those goods were sent back to Europe, where the triangular trade cycle continued for centuries. The economy and foundations of the United States were built on the backs of enslaved Africans and their descendants, who were born into bondage.